Simon rattle

A brilliantly cruel Cosi and punkish Petrushka but the Brits disappoint: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence reviewed

Aix is an odd place. It should be charming, with its dishevelled squares, Busby Berkeley-esque fountains, pretty ochres and pinks. Yet none of it feels quite real. It’s as if an AI bot had been asked to design a Provençale city. Everything is suspiciously perfect. And then you notice all the Irish pubs and American student clones. It’s the prettiness of a Wes Anderson set – with the charm of an airport. In this uncanny valley, however, lies what continues to be one of the world’s classiest opera festivals. The major new commissions this year were two British chamber operas. George Benjamin and Martin Crimp were returning with Picture A

Beggar’s belief

Robert Carsen’s new updating of The Beggar’s Opera is a coke-snorting, trash-talking, breakdancing, palm-greasing, skirt-hiking, rule-breaking affair — and every bit as wearyingly tedious as that sounds. Leaving behind the work’s original 18th-century setting, Carsen sets out boldly for present-day London (where the streets are paved with Brexit-related comedy gold), but in Ian Burton’s rewrite seems to land somewhere circa 1990. In a production originally created for Paris’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Peachum, Macheath and their band of criminal lowlifes are the kind of East End cockney schemers even DCI Jane Tennison would have found it nostalgic to investigate, while corrupt cop Lockit is more Pirates of Penzance than

In defence of the Arts Council

I once knew a monster who said she could not read Proust because there were no figures in Proust with whom she could identify… Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Aesthetics’ (1958-59) Getting an audience to identify themselves in a work – ‘being seen’ – is one of the only reasons why art is commissioned, celebrated or even allowed to exist today. In other words, the 21st century world belongs to Adorno’s monster: we just live in it.  The 20th century’s definition of art, as expressed by another Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, where ‘art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in

A booster shot of sunlight: Unsuk Chin’s new violin concerto reviewed

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra began the year with a world première. Unsuk Chin’s Second Violin Concerto opened with the soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, completely alone in front of a silent orchestra, playing phrases that rocked back and forth until, suddenly, they were striking sparks. As well they might; Kavakos, after all, is the reason that the concerto exists — the violinist whose ‘burningly intense’ (the composer’s words) artistry has prompted Chin to break her self-imposed rule of writing only one concerto for any given instrument. She explained in the programme notes that ‘the solo violin part forms the foundation of the whole score, the soloist triggering all

Hit every auditory G-spot simultaneously: CBSO/Hough/Gardner concert reviewed

Rejoice: live music is back. Or at least, live music with a live audience, which, as Sir Simon Rattle admitted, addressing the masked and socially distanced crowd immediately before the LSO’s first full-scale public performance for 14 months, is kind of the whole point. Yes, he said, they’d streamed online concerts from the Barbican, but the silence of emptiness is a very different proposition from the silence of a hall containing 1,000 human beings. He’s right, of course. Those 14 months have tested to destruction the notion that digital platforms can offer the same sort of emotional nourishment. Once again, then — rejoice! And nobody mention the Indian variant. For

Three new releases that show the classical recording industry is alive and well

Rachmaninov’s First Symphony begins with a snarl, and gets angrier. A menacing skirl from the woodwinds, a triple-fortissimo blast from the brass, and then the full weight of the strings, hammering out one of those doomy Russian motto-melodies like lead boots dragging you to the bottom of the Neva. ‘Vengeance is mine; I shall repay’ glowers the epigraph that Rachmaninov inscribed at the top of the score, and you’d better believe it. The symphony’s première in 1897 was a disaster that stunned the 23-year-old composer into near-silence. And no question, when the gong roars out at the climax of the finale — on the way to one of the most

Will Britain’s orchestras survive the Brexit exodus?

In the first month of Brexit, two British orchestras were publicly beheaded. The London Symphony Orchestra was shocked to discover that its music director, Sir Simon Rattle, had taken a better job in Munich, while the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was forced to accept that its luminous Lithuanian, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, was simply too hot to hold any longer. Some pundits quickly predicted a post-Brexit talent haemorrhage. Of the two decapitations, the LSO’s was by far the more painful. Rattle is a totemic figure, a tousle-haired Liverpudlian who learned his scores in public libraries and won a music scholarship from the local council. He is the ultimate welfare-state success story,

Vanity and fake news lie behind Simon Rattle’s new concert hall plan

Like Theresa May with her thrice-spurned deal, the London Symphony Orchestra is pressing ahead with plans for a concert hall to be achieved at a price that no-one believes and for which it has no visible resources. Like Mrs May, the LSO is relying on friendly journalists to distract the public’s attention from the huge black holes in the plan, hoping against hope that momentum alone will carry the day against all reasonable logic. You can see why they keep trying, though. The LSO promised Sir Simon Rattle it would build him a new hall if he signed on as music director. Its players know that the dismal Barbican acoustic

British opera companies and orchestras must start investing in native talent

Early in 1946, two men boarded a train at Euston and went trawling for talent. Audition notices were posted at town halls up and down the land: singers wanted, no experience required. Two thousand applied. One town after another, they lined up for Karl Rankl, Covent Garden’s music director, and David Webster, its general manager. Those who sang in tune were hired, £8 a week for chorus, £40 for soloists. An organist in a Harrogate church was appointed chorusmaster. ‘At Carmen rehearsals,’ recalled Constance Shacklock, a farm girl from Nottinghamshire and future star, ‘none of us had ever seen a Carmen before, let alone sung one.’ By mid-year, Covent Garden

Couldn’t the BBC have filled at least some of the seats? First night of the Proms reviewed

The Royal Albert Hall, as Douglas Adams never wrote, is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Which is great if you want a colossal audience; less great as a venue for classical music. True, sound engineers have brought us a long way from the 19th century, when one critic (it might have been Bernard Shaw) described a Weber overture wafting around that cavernous acoustic like a feather caught in a draught. If you tune in to Radio 3 — which is how most listeners have always heard the Proms — it sounds fine. But it wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of venue

Portrait of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – Britain’s oldest and ballsiest orchestra

Liverpool’s last ocean liner lies half a mile inland, on the crest of a hill. The Philharmonic Hall, home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, sits between two cathedrals on Hope Street, its towers jutting over the city like twin prows. It’s an unavoidable metaphor: when you enter the Hall on a concert night, the first thing you see is a bronze memorial to the musicians of the Titanic. Everything about the Hall — the grand staircase; the long curving corridors; the art deco auditorium that looks like something from Alexander Korda’s Things to Come — suggests that you’re about to steam off on some fantastic voyage. I’ve heard concerts

I’m still not wholly convinced by Kirill Petrenko: Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall reviewed

At the start of Elgar’s Second Symphony the full orchestra hovers, poised. It pulls back; and then, like a dam breaking, the music surges forward in wave upon wave of golden sound. ‘Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!’ writes Elgar, quoting Shelley, at the top of the score, and you won’t hear that spirit captured more exuberantly than in a performance from May 2009 by the Berlin Philharmonic under its future music director Kirill Petrenko. The violins gleam, the horns swell and every player is audibly leaning into the music. Under Petrenko, Elgar’s leaping compound rhythms almost seem to dance. The catch, of course — the truth that gives

Weill’s Broadway opera is made for telly: Opera North’s Street Scene reviewed

It’s a sweltering night in Manhattan, circa 1947, and on the doorstep of a brownstone tenement three women are waiting for their menfolk to return. There’s plenty to gossip about. The Hildebrands upstairs are being evicted tomorrow, and the Buchanans are expecting a baby. And what’s the deal with Mrs Maurrant and Steve the milkman? Old Mr Kaplan reads the newspaper and denounces the bourgeoisie. A kid cadges a dime and big, kind Lippo Fiorentino arrives home from work with ice creams for everyone. At which point it becomes fairly safe to conclude that the America of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene is not the America of his Mahagonny. Forget the

Why Peter Sellars’s staging of the St John Passion – which I sang in – was deeply flawed

It has been my privilege over the past two weeks to sing in the chorus of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Simon Rattle and director Peter Sellars in a staged production of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. The experience has been life changing for some of my colleagues; it has certainly been unique. Dressed in black casual clothing, we spend much of the performance sauntering around the stage making abstract gestures intended to highlight certain words and distill the myriad emotions found in the music. Some find this effective; others find it silly. Sellars’s forte as a director is his ability to communicate to his performers

Bingo with Birtwistle

A pregnant silence, a peaty belch from the tuba, and the scrape of brass on brass as gears lock into position and judder forward. It’s almost worth making a bingo card for a Harrison Birtwistle première these days, and I’m not complaining. His last big orchestral work, Deep Time, showed worrying signs of him mellowing into some sort of late period. Not here though, he isn’t. Grinding brass cogwheels? Tick. Sudden stillnesses, punctuated by deadpan creakings and poppings? Tick. Primal screeches from the woodwinds, jarring against chords of millstone grit? House! Birtwistle’s new fanfare achieves a lot in just three minutes, and it’s a handsome gift to Sir Simon Rattle,

Trivial pursuits | 7 June 2018

‘Is there an end [to this opera] that is not trivial?’ asks the Countess in her final bars of Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio. Given the previous two and a half hours, the answer would seem to be a decided no. It is a frothy confection even by the standards of his later operas, the better parts reminiscent of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos and some of Arabella. One thing to be said in its defence is that Strauss’s writing it in 1941–2 is no criticism of him or of the work. People make a fuss about that, but do they think he should have produced an heroic piece

Rattle’s hall

Even in a Trump world where reality is what you say it is, the London Symphony Orchestra’s announcement of a new concert hall occupies a bubble of pure fantasy. New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro have been awarded a contract for a project that has no funding. Concert hall, what concert hall? The only cash on the table is £2.5 million from the Corporation of the City of London. The hall is hot air. There has been no public consultation, no actuarial study of demographic need, no consideration of best possible sites or size. There is not even a consensus within the classical sector that a new hall is

The Bilbao effect

Twenty years ago I wrote of the otherwise slaveringly praised Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: I’m in a minority of, apparently, one. It strikes me as a consummate gimmick… a fantastically elaborate and rather wearisome joke. Has mankind spent all these centuries perfecting Euclidean geometry and orthogonal engineering in order to have it overthrown by massively expensive crazy cottages clad in titanium? Apparently mankind has. So much for the building. What of the ‘Bilbao effect’, an epithet that I am accused of having coined (I can’t remember, but it’s inappropriate because there is, typically, no effect). Even before Frank Gehry’s earth-shattering masterpiece was finished, word was out and post-industrial cities on

Beauty and the beast

I was going to start with a little moan. About the shouty marketing, the digital diarrhoea, the sycophantic drivel, which, like a bad smell, hovered over Simon Rattle’s ten-day coronation. But then came the most amazing Rite of Spring I’ve ever heard and to moan suddenly seemed criminal. No masterpiece is harder to pull off than the Rite. So often it deflates midway and never regains its shape. Rattle made his name with the piece when he was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, taming the brute, slowing it down, prising open its interior, allowing us to inspect its fangs, look straight down its snappy gob. Here, the beast

Director’s cut | 21 September 2017

Much fuss has been made of the title given to Sir Simon Rattle on arrival at the London Symphony Orchestra. Unlike his LSO predecessors — Valery Gergiev, Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, Claudio Abbado, André Previn — all of whom were engaged as principal conductor, Rattle has been named music director, a position that bears serious administrative responsibilities. As Rattle put it recently in one of a dozen media interviews: ‘Valery wasn’t interested, nor Claudio. Colin loved them to bits, but he made it very clear that he did not want anything to do with the running or the auditions or the personnel… I will be much more involved with